What’s the future for the Smallpox Hospital at Southpoint Park? With the help of consultants Fitzgerald & Halliday, the Roosevelt Island Operating Corporation (RIOC) is considering it for a local market, a cafe, or a museum. But the Four Freedoms Conservancy is focused on making sure it doesn’t crumble. The Conservancy has commissioned a structural review.
“Louis Kahn designed the FDR memorial in visual balance with the entire southern end of Roosevelt Island,” says Stephen Martin, Director of Design and Planning at the Four Freedoms Conservancy. “He incorporated the same type of granite that makes up the Smallpox Hospital and the now demolished City Hospital into his shorelines. The width of the southernmost facade aligns to the stairs. He also rendered the height of the trees at the memorial’s entrance to the exact same height as the Smallpox Hospital. It is clear Kahn revered the building. We at the Conservancy would do anything to make sure it has a long, stable life.
“There is concern on behalf of us regarding the Smallpox Hospital.” Martin says. “The Conservancy feels that if the Smallpox Hospital crumbles, the experience of the [FDR] memorial wouldn’t be the same. We are going to do whatever we can to advocate for its stabilization. We would be happy for any appropriate adaptive reuse – for example a community space or a ruin garden – as long as [the Smallpox Hospital] is stabilized.”
The Smallpox Hospital has been vacant since the 1950s and was already in ruins when Louis Kahn designed the Four Freedoms Memorial.
“We are lucky to have it. [The Smallpox Hospital] is an icon on this Island.” Martin says. “You see it driving down the FDR Drive. It tells a lot about the history of the Island.” Residents of Sutton Place, who look across the river from the Manhattan side, originally paid for the spotlights that now light up the structure at night.
“Think about it: it was a place of inclusion, it was a place to get better when the Island was named Welfare. As dark as the other side of that history is, it was a place to regain strength.” After functioning as a Smallpox Hospital it became a nursing school for City Hospital for 70 years.
Then there’s the building itself. Martin cites the “obviously beautiful architecture.” As the Bowery Boys, Greg Young and Tom Meyers, note in BoweryBoysHistory.com, “Delightfully lit year round, it rises out of the East River like a haunted castle, with stark turrets and dark windows peering back at the city. More impressive than its Halloween-like trappings is the fact that such a large ruin has managed to survive near Manhattan at all without being torn down and turned into a glass condominium. For that reason, Renwick Ruins should creep you out and impress you in equal parts.”
As an architect, Martin says he has a deep love for historic buildings.“I love Roosevelt Island, I love the community. I also have a real love for public space and historically important buildings.” Martin points to the iconic arch on the third floor, the entry porch and the center bay as points of architectural interest. “I have been so fascinated by the building itself. The Conservancy wants to generate more interest in it. It’s not part of [Four Freedoms] park. It’s been us saying, is there any way we can generate a broader interest in this beautiful building?”
To that end, the Smallpox Hospital is under structural review by Walter B. Melvin Architects. “This same team meticulously restored the failing steeple at the James Renwick, Jr. designed Grace Church in downtown Manhattan. The steeple had come out. They were able to disassemble the entire steeple and recreate it piece by piece, and recreate the stone. The structural engineer on the team also worked to stabilize the Octagon on the northern end of Roosevelt Island,” says Martin. “They are a powerhouse.”
“While RIOC is heading the community plan [the Community Plan for Southpoint Open Space, the RIOC study], we have been commissioned through state parks (New York State Parks Recreation & Historic Preservation) to do a stabilization study. We feel that our study is part and parcel to the RIOC study. Timely as well.” A schematic is scheduled to be complete when the Southpoint Open Space community study is complete. Then, depending on the community’s decision, the Conservancy would have the opportunity to advance it further.
Of the Community Plan, run by consulting firm Fitzgerald & Halliday, Martin says, “The nice thing about all of this is, instead of destroying the thing, our study is in tune with and aligned with the RIOC study. Whatever the community can decide upon, our study will inform it.” For the record, Martin’s favorite ideas for Southpoint Park at large, besides stabilization of the Smallpox Hospital, are a kayak launch and more shade.
As for who is footing the bill for this work, Martin says, “The ruin is designated as a State Landmark and the State advocates for preservation on behalf of hundreds of landmarks across New York State.” Private support has also been added to the fund.
The conservancy’s goal for the structure is permanent stabilization. “Anything that the conservancy can do to make sure this building is intact for another 100 years, we want to do,” Martin says. Right now, all stabilization measures are temporary ones, some of which were installed in the 1970s. Other efforts followed in the ‘80s, the ‘90s, and the 2000s. Martin says that they are all working against each other. Currently the building has no roof. Its interiors have been stripped of floor slabs and stairwells and there are no windows. It is totally exposed to the elements and it is no longer stable. The north wall collapsed in the late 2000s and that needs to be rebuilt into the structure.”
Support from the GDP
As for the Conservancy’s vision for the Smallpox Hospital, Martin references the Island’s General Development Plan (GDP), which includes Southpoint Park as one of its Open Space Areas. Open Space Areas were planned to be developed to serve both Island residents and residents of the City as a whole. Martin says the Conservancy’s goal echoes that of the GDP that Southpoint at large, and specifically the Smallpox Hospital, remain public space. He says, “I’d love to see that stay for the community. I don’t know if a local marketplace or hotel fits into that but that’s for the community to grapple with. RIOC has been terrific assembling the community to discuss this.” Martin cites the mission and purpose of the Smallpox Hospital, “What better use of a building is there than how important [the Smallpox Hospital] was to the Island. That was a very special time here.”
Why Not Just Tear it Down
What about just tearing down the Smallpox Hospital? Martin says, “That is a horrible idea. It wouldn’t be smart for the community, or for New York State.” Martin says it is landmarked by the City, the State, and the federal government for a reason. He believes it is integral to the current community and our history here. He recently spoke to Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer about the Smallpox Hospital and she said, “Absolutely not,” to tearing down the ruin.
City Hospital was also once on that site, and it was torn down. Roosevelt Island Historical Society President Judy Berdy explained, “City Hospital was placed on the National Register of Historic Places along with our six current New York City and New York State landmarks. The City Hospital was never landmarked by the New York City Landmark Preservation Commission. Since the landmarking took place in 1976, I was not here and do not know why [City Hospital] was not designated. Only landmarked buildings cannot be demolished.” Like the Smallpox Hospital, City Hospital was also a Renwick design. Martin said it was torn down because it was unsafe but that “RIOC and the State would entirely disagree with that.”